In 2003 I was hired on a contract-grant by the Sea-to-Sky Freenet of Squamish BC, to revamp their website. S2S is one of the last of the active old-time freenets. Freenets (or “free-nets” or “community networks”) sprung up in the early days of the popularization of the Internet, and worked to provide access and training so people could get online in a meaningful way. As commercial dial-up became more common, they generally either switched focus to training and net-centered community development, or went away. When I was hired in 2003, the Sea-to-Sky Freenet was 10 years into providing a needed service in Squamish.
Squamish is (or was, things are changing) a small logging-dependent town which had lost most of it’s major industries and was reeling from unemployment and such. There is (or was) a particularly strong need for social services there. These days, a lot of social services are mediated at least in part through on-line access. Libraries have consequently become portals of access for people who can’t afford their own computer and monthly internet bills. But libraries are rarely funded or skilled to provide training and support to internet users, and the sort of people who need to get internet at the library are frequently the sort of people who aren’t comfortable with computers and browsers and search engines once they get there. To make it more difficult, public libraries aren’t always funded to open early enough or stay open late enough, nor can they always provide incidental child care. So the Freenet provides a get-it-done volunteers-and-grants model of getting that access and support to people in Squampton.
In addition to getting people online and sitting with them when they needed it, the Freenet also worked as an umbrella for techish community development projects, providing access to community calendars, coordinating volunteer programs, providing email accounts, hosting community sites, salvaging and reselling busted old computers on the cheap, running summer camps and even providing free, way-way-way-minimal dialup. They needed a better site, that would provide a flexible infrastructure for whatever they wanted to put on it. Email, forums, calendars, blogs etc. It needed to be editable by non-html types. There are a bunch of “content management systems” that do that.
When I got there they had already settled on the GPL-open-source webGUI by Plainblack as their CMS of choice. My job was to dialogue with the staff and the board, figure out what they needed from a website, and make it happen. My web skills were pre-CSS at the time. My non-profit engagement skills were a little better. Both the tech and the people sides of the project were challenging.
From the tech side, I found webGUI to be unintuitive and under-documented. It exists in an odd but apparently benign free/commercial state wherein the software is open and free, but the support is provided commercially by the same company that leads the development. That’s okay I guess, but we couldn’t even afford to buy the manual. So I figured stuff out by doing it. In the end, it all worked, and there were existing plug-ins for all the functionality we could think of, and more than eventually got used. Later, working on a CMS for reservaloscedros.org and developing my own site, I discovered that every open-source CMS I tried was, years later, still unintuitive and more or less under-documented. There’s plenty of space for developing truly non-geek CMS packages.
From the institutional side, the challenge was finding a balance between challenging the board and staff to decide what they wanted from a website, and giving them real material to think about by creating it and implementing it even if they hadn’t asked for it. They wanted somebody who wouldn’t take the project hostage, but they weren’t always sure a priori what it was they wanted from the project. I imagine this is a common and healthy tension in small-organization web-dev situations. It was kind of fun. Lots of Saturday morning board meetings and bakery coffee.
At the time I wasn’t particularly satisfied with the look of the result. One thing we could never settle on was a “style” which was satisfactory to all, so what got implemented was pretty bland, and the interface wasn’t all it could be. We included grey in the colour scheme because it was “like the highway”. But the actual functions of the site were all there. What was most important turned out to be the blog, some of the most basic “about the organization” info and the webmail interface. Most of the other dynamic areas of the site weren’t much developed. What did get used got used robustly for 4 years. I think that’s pretty good. Every time I’ve checked in on the site some new content has been up. And somehow that logo we kept talking about never got finished up.
As of fall 2007 I’m excited to see that they have a new local volunteer who is preparing an all-new website for them (apparently he’s a plone guy. heavy! should be good). The Freenet itself has flourished, moving to the main street and becoming “The Hotspot”. Last time I was in Squamish they were at the top of their game, running more boxes, offering more programs, hosting more community space, selling more salvage, helping more people. I’ve always been ambivalent about the website I helped create, but it was a fun and engaging experience, and in the end it sure got used.